The first time I saw the man everyone called “Helluva,” I found myself wondering, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? Much later after observing, meeting, and coming to know this person for who he truly is, I’m left to ponder, What is the price of self-respect in prison?
The first thing I noticed was a man with the petite build of one who has never lifted more than a book in his life and a beard that rivaled that of Grizzly Adams. It was an odd association considering the rumor mill that preceded the man’s arrival. The name “Helluva” conjured images of wanton pleasure, albeit unacceptable from the prison officials’ standpoint, yet carnal from those who spoke and fantasized about the man with the moniker. His shy and demure demeanor only raised my hackles more. Generally, unaffected by such talk and the lifestyle that goes with it, the contradiction I would come to see in the following months it’d take me to make his acquaintance urged me to do something, speak up, anything to right the wrongs I’d normally overlook.
What nudged me into action? I’d say it was my conscience, but I’d be lying.
Helluva came to prison with what society deems the most heinous of crimes: a sex charge. He walked into this gated community with the conviction that since his decisions resulted in his creation of an unwitting victim, then should he himself become victimized, he was only getting his just desserts. This perspective was not his alone.
In prison, the greatest of all insult is a “cho-mo,” shortened slang for a child molester. This term becomes universal for any and all inmates with a sex offense. You were 18 and your girlfriend was a week away from 18 herself? A nasty divorce leads to a disgruntled parent’s coercive maneuvering of a child into a weapon? Cho-mo.
Down in these parts there is a form of evidence called “testimonial” and anyone can become the not so proud owner of a sex charge based on victim statements alone. No medical or physical evidence required, and in this neck of the woods inmates with sex charges are a majority. This prison’s population of 80% sex offenders bears silent witness to this great state’s war on crime.
Though Helluva admits his guilt and participates in the mandatory treatment program, he still found himself accosted daily by anyone “feeling some type of way,” harassed by all, sometimes the guards themselves when they could get away with it, and under the constant weight of his own shame.
I’d find out over the years from inmates who had served time with him and others of his ilk, that people like him were immediately forced into servitude to violent offenders, and others who felt the need to become sexual vigilantes. And thus the cycle would continue. I once asked one of the men who partook of Helluva’s so called wares if he considered himself to now be the perpetrator of the sex charge. Said man, who was serving 5 years for burglary, vehemently assured me, that despite the split lip, bruises, and tears sported by Helluva, everything was consensual. Besides, doesn’t every one of those weirdos deserve a taste of their own medicine?
In my opinion, the Justice Department with the help of television programming has in effect created the world’s first perpetual motion device: a cycle of hatred that vilifies, demoralizes, and creates an entirely new class of crimes. With the creation of new crimes, comes a new tool to use in the fight: PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Does it work? Ask Helluva. He has yet to report a single incident. Nor will countless others who see this attempt for the farce that it is, a cough drop for a terminal illness.
What is the price of a T-Shirt in prison? For an inmate with no outside support who relies on 80 cents a day, does the price tag of $12 justify the expenditure? For Helluva, whose first instance of being victimized in prison became an oft-repeated source of ridicule spread from prison to prison by observers and hearsay, the cost was too much.
As the story goes, Helluva received a used T-shirt from his cellmate. Grateful for the small token of kindness, he thanked him. The next day, while wearing the T-shirt, a friend of the cellmate informed Helluva that he now owned him for the article of clothing. Efforts to buy a new one were refused. Payment came in the form of physical attack and sexual violations over several months.
Helluva”confirmed to me the validity of the rumors. He has since been passed around and used by nine others over 10 years. He still blames himself, for his guilt and fears. That is why he won’t tell.
Burdened with problems of my own, I’d refused to see the forest for the tree in front of me. That changed the night “Buzzy Wuzzy” took it upon himself to want to become number 10 in the long line of defeats Helluva had been subjected to. The beard was just one aspect of Helluva’s new outlook on life. He was at a new prison amongst people who knew very little of his past and the mistakes he had made. Though scared, he said no. Amidst the smacks and shoves, he still refused. Despite the surreptitious whispers of “you know you want it” and “if I was a child, you’d like it,” he finally had had enough.
And so had I.
I’d like to say that I stopped the event from going any further because I knew that what was about to take place was morally wrong, but I can’t. The truth is, I am a broken individual. Amidst a sea of convicted, I was floundering, being dragged down into the murky depths of hopelessness myself. It took a man relegated to the life of a troglodyte to reawaken my own sense of humanity. Helluva wanted to be a person again, to accept his errors and rise against his convictions, to feel human again. And so did I.
Derek Trumbo #201410
Northpoint Training Center
PO Box 479
Burgin, KY 40310